Projecting Tomorrow: An Interview with James Chapman and Nicholas J. Cull (Part One)

  The recently published Projecting Tomorrow: Science Fiction and Popular Film offers vivid and thoughtful case studies that consider the production and reception of key British and American science fiction movies, including Just Imagine (1930), Things to Come (1936), The War of the Worlds (1953), The Quatermass Experiment and its sequels (1955), Forbidden Planet (1956), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Planet of the Apes (1968), The Hellstrom Chronicles (1971), Logan's Run (1976), Star Wars (1977), RoboCop (1987), and Avatar (2009). I very much enjoyed the background that Chapman and Cull provided on these films. Even though I was familiar with each of these films already, I managed to learn something new in every chapter. The authors did a masterful job  in the selection of examples -- a mix of the essential and the surprising -- which nevertheless manage to cover many of the key periods in the genre's evolution on the screen.  They make a strong case for why SF films need to be considered in their own right and not simply as an extension of the literary version of the genre.  Chapman and Cull are long-time SF fans, but they also bring the skills of an archival historian and expertise in global politics to bear on these rich case studies.   All told, I suspect this book is going to be well received by fans and academics alike.

I have gotten to know Cull, who is a colleague of mine here at the Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism, through hallway and breakroom conversations about our mutual interests in Doctor Who and a range of other cult media properties, and I was delighted to have some interplay with Chapman when he visited USC a year or so back. I am therefore happy this week to be able to share with you an interview with the two authors who hits at some of the key themes running through Projecting Tomorrow.


Henry: Let me ask you a question you pose early in your introduction: “Why has SF literature been so poorly served by the cinema?” Perhaps, we can broaden out from that and ask what you see as the relationship between science fiction literature and film. Why do the differences in the media and their audiences result in differences in emphasis and focus?

Nick: This is an excellent question. My sense is that SF literature has tended to serve divergent objectives to SF film. I am taken by the British novelist/critic Kingsley Amis’s observation fifty years ago that the idea is the hero in literary science fiction. My corollary to that is that the image is the hero in SF cinema. Cinema by its nature emphasizes image over ideas and all the more so as the technology to generate ever more spectacular images has increased.

James: I think there's also a sense in which SF literature has always been a slightly niche interest - popular with its readership, yes, but generally not best-seller levels of popular. SF cinema, in contrast, is now a mainstream genre that has to serve the needs of the general cinema-going audience as well as genre fans. Hence the charge from SF readers that cinema by and large doesn't do SF very well - that the need to attract a broad audience (because of the expense of the films) leads to a diluting of the 'ideas' aspect of SF in literature. One of the themes we track in the book is the process through which SF went from being a marginal genre in cinema to becoming, from the 1970s, a major production trend.


Henry: What criteria led to the selection of the case studies you focus upon in Projecting Tomorrow?

Nick: We chose films that could both represent the SF cinema tradition on both sides of the Atlantic and illuminate a range of historical issues. We needed films that had a good supply of archive material to which we could apply our historical research methods, and all the better if that material had hitherto escaped scholarly analysis. We wanted the milestones to be present but also some surprise entries too. There were some hard choices. We doubted there was anything really new to say about Blade Runner so that proposed chapter was dropped. I was keen to write about Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers but was unable to locate sufficient archive material for a historical approach. It was during that search that I found the treasure trove of material from Verhoeven’s RoboCop and decided to write about that instead. One of the Star Trek films and Jurassic Park were also late casualties from the proposal. There are some surprise inclusions too. We both find the combination of genres a fascinating phenomenon and hence included The Hellstrom Chronicle, which grafts elements of SF onto the documentary genre and managed to spawn a couple of SF projects in the process.

James: The selection of case studies was a real problem for this book, as SF is such a broad genre in style and treatment, and there are so many different kinds of stories. We wanted to have broad chronological coverage: the 'oldest' film is from 1930 (Just Imagine) and the most recent is 2009 (Avatar). It would have been possible to write a dozen case studies focusing on a single decade - the 1950s, for example, or the 1970s, both very rich periods for SF cinema - but we felt this would have been less ambitious and would not have enabled us to show how the genre, and its thematic concerns, have changed and evolved over time. Beyond that, Nick and I are both historians by training, and we wanted examples where there was an interesting story behind the film to tell. Logan's Run, for example, is a case where the production history is in certain ways more interesting than the finished film: George Pal had wanted to make it in the late 1960s as a sort of 'James Bond in Tomorrowland' but for various reasons it didn't happen then, and when it was finally made, in the mid 1970s, the treatment was more serious (and perhaps portentous). Some films selected themselves: we could not NOT have milestones like Things to Come and 2001: A Space Odyssey - and in the latter case the Stanley Kubrick Archive had recently been opened to researchers and so there were new primary sources available. I wanted to include Dark Star, a sort of spoof response to 2001, but there wasn't much in the way of archive sources and the background to the film is quite well known - and in any event we already had plenty of other case studies from the 1970s. In the end, although we had to leave out some important films, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (I'd simply refer readers to Barry Keith Grant's excellent study of this film in the British Film Institute's 'Film Classics' series), this meant we could find space for some forgotten films, such as Just Imagine, and for some that are probably less familiar to US audiences, such as The Quatermass Experiment.

Henry: You have made a conscious choice here to include British as well as American exemplars of science fiction. How would you characterize the relationship between the two? In what ways do they intercept each other? How are the two traditions different?

Nick: British and American SF and culture more widely are thoroughly intertwined. The sad truth is that US corporate culture tends to homogenize so I think it helps to have the UK bubbling along across the pond as a kind of parallel universe in which different responses can emerge and save the creative gene pool from in-breeding. SF cinema has seen some great examples of this Anglo-America cross fertilization process. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a terrific example of that. If I had to essentialize the difference between the two approaches, I’d say that Britain is a little more backward looking (anticipating Steam Punk) and the US has been more comfortable with a benign military presence. Today the two traditions have become so interlinked that it is very difficult to disengage them, but they seem to be good for each other.

James: The Anglo-American relationship was also something we'd explored in our first book together, Projecting Empire, where we found there were strong parallels in the representation of imperialism in Hollywood and British cinema. In that book we have two case studies by Nick, on Gunga Din and The Man Who Would Be King, showing how a British author, Rudyard Kipling, met the ideological needs of American film-makers. The equivalent of Kipling for science fiction is H.G. Wells, a British author widely adapted, including by Hollywood - and again we have two case studies of Wellesian films. If I were to generalize about the different traditions of US and UK science fiction - and this is a gross over-simplification, as there are numerous exceptions - it would be that by and large American SF movies have held to a generally optimistic view of the future whereas British SF, certainly since the Second World War, has been more pessimistic. This might reflect the contrasting fortunes of the two nations since the mid-twentieth century - American films expressing the optimism and confidence of the newly emergent superpower, British films coming to terms with the slow decline of a former imperial power. But, as I said, this is an over-simplification. Planet of the Apes, for example, has a very dystopian ending (though later films in the series are more optimistic in suggesting the possibility of peaceful future co-existence), whereas Doctor Who (albeit from television) is an example of British SF with a generally positive outlook on the future.

Nick Cull is professor of communication at University of Southern California.  He is a historian whose research focuses on the interface between politics and the mass media.  In addition to well-known books on the history of propaganda he has published widely on popular cinema and television including shorter pieces on Doctor Who, Gerry Anderson and The Exorcist.

James Chapman is professor of film at University of Leicester in the UK.  He is a historian who has specialized in popular film and television.  His work has included book length studies of James Bond, Doctor Who, British Adventure Serials, British Comic Books and British propaganda in the Second World War.  His previous collaboration with Nick Cull was a book on Imperialism in US and British popular cinema.